Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Re-Considering Epistemology

Originally posted on July 9, 2011

Epistemology is that branch of philosophy that addresses the question of how we know what we know. There are other branches of philosophy that address other questions, such as “what is fair or good in the realm of social relations”—ethics; or what is really real—metaphysics; and so forth.

This topic of “epistemology” came up in a discussion I had recently with some professional colleagues. (Our senior citizen retirement community has a goodly number of book clubs and other venues for continuing the life of the mind! No moss is growing on these old rocks!) So, following the meeting, I found that the topic evoked some thoughts:

In the olden days (meaning the 20th century, when I grew up), and for a few historical periods before that, it was believed by serious thinkers that we could indeed grasp the great truths in life. As in the last four decades everything has speeded up and become more complex, a variety of postmodernist thinkers have in their own way questioned this fundamental assumption.

It should be noted that there are as many differences among different postmodern thinkers as there were among the existentialist writers in the late 19th through the middle of the 20th centuries! The main thing the existentialists shared was—as far as I can discern—a general contrasting view to the previous philosophical trend of essentialism. In essentialism, more popular in the 19th century, there were still efforts to tease out and identify those elements that were essential true about human nature. Existentialsts said that this was not possible; life is too complex; the focus for reality should be on the messy, often self-contradictory reality reality of actual living. It seems to me that today  postmodernists carry forth this relativistic viewpoint to new heights, questioning the potential of any statement to be ultimately true or not.

So the problem of how we can know what we know should first be met with a counter-challenge: What evidence is there that we can know with absolute certainty anything at all? (I won’t bother with the category of rather superficial platitudes or empty and near trivial facts.) And what evidence is there that the desire to find real truths in our thoughts or perceptions in not an illusory, intellectualized projection of the fantasy that knowing would then give us more control over the fortunes of life? In other words, why should we attempt to know for certain, or generalize for certain?

I suggest that the effort to know for sure is part of a greedy illusion; that it is not so that if only we could “get” true knowledge or insight, that would be mysteriously powerful enough to lead to constructive changes in life. Indeed, I suggest that not only is this not so, but that the human efforts in pursuit of this illusory goal uses up a great deal of human energy. The belief that there is meaningful knowledge to be known is thus a kind of grasping for ghosts.

This is not to suggest that we reduce our efforts to discern and nibble away at what might yet be discovered, learned, invented. There’s lots of that. Those are part of our frontiers, and the adventure is far from over. Rather, I’m suggesting that we forego the illusion that there is an end point. We should give up the childish demand for an absolute grasp and instead continue to surrender to letting go into the journey.

Consider that not knowing for sure is okay, and that instead of the illusion of “knowing”—-I comment on that on another web entry today— living into faith, intuition, improvisation, awaiting feedback, believing that feedback from others will help. Knowing becomes less important than supposing and getting feedback. That in turn involves a recognition that maintaining positive emotional connections is part of it. There’s a shift from objectivity to subjectivity and interpersonal sensitivity and feedback.

To ensure a positive tone for this, a friendliness, people’s communications must be modest, provisional, tentative, open to commentary and negotiation. This is a very deeply different way to relate to reality—a way that is closer to the pre-writing, tribal way of exploring. There’s that word, exploring, and match that to creating a provisional—pretend—“as-if”—yet supportive context for those explorations, and !voila! Play!

The objection arises from those who feel they must be guaranteed some security in being right. If this postmodernist, relativist, feedback-oriented abandonment of strict logic is to be accepted, then, well, perhaps anything goes? Murder! Rape! All sorts of antisocial and immoral vices seem supported. Not a bit of it. That’s just extremism perceiving any dilution of extremism as an opening of the gates of moral vacuity. It’s a denial of the entire potential of the middle ground.

If one can mature into the capacity to contain the middle ground, one realizes that 99% of life operates on this qualified middle-level dynamic. Husbands and wives negotiate; efforts of one to assert his or her “right-ness” only increases if not overt conflict, then passive-aggressive resentment. Parents may be firm with young children, but as kids grow older there is more ongoing negotiation. And negotiation often includes non-rational preferences, acknowledges that others give a different coloring and weight to certain words or ideas. A more flowing back-and-forth negotiation is truly closer to the way the real world works.

It lacks crispness, but then again, perhaps the whole era of philosophy that imagined that ultimate knowledge was theoretically accessible was itself a blind alley, a misleading hypothesis. The idea that—back to epistemology—truth can be “known” might well be a terrible error that stood in denial of the true complexity of things.

For example, here’s a fundamental philosophy—akin to Plato’s parable of the cave. All we know and do are constructs of our individual and collective minds, and it operates not as a deep description of the way things are, but rather closer to surface of things only. The cosmos is infiltrated by synchronicities, meaningful coincidences that are far from occasional or superficial. Many of our most crucial developments arise from these “lucky” confluences. What if our known cosmos is like the thin “skin” of a pudding at its interface with the air—or as Plato sought to express it, shadows of a puppet show projected on a cave wall, the show being taken as the actuality of reality?

I suspect this because I suspect that mind is as much a part of reality as time, space, matter, and energy, and thus all reality is subject to mind at a level that isn’t absolute at all. Reality inter-subjectively co-created, and individually, idiosyncratically co-created, and collectively co-created. There well may be some “objective” or purely physical reality, but it is only a modest part of what people experience as life.

Of course this is wacky, inconceivable, impossible to define crisply, and appeals to non-rational elements. If it can’t be defined or transformed into clear ideas and terms, is it even a philosophy worth considering? This was one of the possible conclusions of Wittgenstein—who didn’t even believe it—and smaller minds captured by the myth of knowing for sure, the sub-field of logical positivism. They would disdain the aforementioned metaphysical speculations out of hand. But they would have trouble arguing at the fundamental roots about the validity of their assumptions. The idea that it is good to know, it is possible to know, and that it is desirable to know for sure, all seem self-evident, but such assumptions are not tied to either experience or practicality.

(I am aware that there are others who base their lives on a firm ground of belief, and that these folks may get deeply offended at any  hint that belief in a firm ground is unnecessary and counterproductive. Such folks may react viscerally to any intuitively perceived threat to their belief system. Without these exact words, the feeling evoked may be something like, “If you’re going to say that, then you are obviously a lawyer for the Devil!” To those folks let’s just back away slowly, murmuring softly, “Okay, okay, I was just kidding. This was just a thought experiment. Don’t get your shorts in a knot. Put down the hammer and nails, the gun, the torch. Easy, easy.”)

I am radically proposing a more playful and free-wheeling metaphysical approach to philosophy: What if the goal is to generate a more useful myth that more people can enjoy? What if the goal is to come up with a myth that would have many of the advantages of what is claimed by the world’s major religions and philosophies without having to take with it the evident disadvantages? I think this is possible if we imagine that reality is mutable and that creative myth-making is a good way to live one’s life.

Epistemology, then, is not just a big word, an affectation of intellectuals. It is a philosophical reflection of a major turning point in the evolution of consciousness, from an era when it was believed that it was possible and good to know to an era in which complete, clear, tight knowledge is neither possible or virtuous. There are other virtues that take priority, such as kindness. The illusion that one is right and that one can come up with many compelling reasons for how one is right is now exposed as a trick of the mind. Clever people can without great effort generate innumerable rationalizations to justify their interests, even if the implications of their rightness is the justification of cruelty and exploitation.

Knowledge is power can thus be interpreted in a rather ominous fashion: Thinking that you know and supporting your illusion of knowing with innumerable “reasons” can support your willingness to exercise your power with a gun! The mind is the tool of individual and collective greed for power and other benefits associated with power. I distrust the illusion of knowing, and trust more the idea that kindness trumps (the illusion of) knowledge.

In summary, we need an epistemology that builds in a degree of intellectual humility and the awareness of the power of self-deception. It is okay to be in the ballpark, making some headway. It is good to doubt a little, to open to new creative horizons. Perhaps we should not try too hard to know for sure what we think we know.

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